On the consumer front, digital and social media have created opportunities for greater engagement between brands and the people who buy them. On the corporate front, digital and social media have created new channels for critics, who are empowered and mobilizing. In that environment, will corporate communicators inevitably be on the back foot?
1. Continued convergence
“Audience convergence means the boundaries will continue to collapse between corporate PR and other parts of the marketing mix,” says Dominic Pendry, who heads the corporate practice at Fishburn. “Companies with a crystal clear sense of purpose will have a major competitive advantage, and the smartest corporate campaigns will be channel agnostic, create mass participation and tell stories that are human in scale by drawing on real people – not just the CEO – to deliver the message.”
Neil Hedges, of the UK’s Headland Consultancy, believes this will demand new skills from corporate communicators.
“The focus on the demands of the end-customer will continue to gather pace, not just in the retail sector but also in traditionally intermediated businesses such as financial services. Wholesaling businesses and those which define themselves as B2B will need to think more broadly about the end-users of their products.
“At the same time, investors will need to understand how this relentless focus will play out…. If ever there were a time for corporate PR practitioners to demonstrate their understanding of customers, investors and everyone else in between, it’s now.”
2. It’s all about change
“Corporate communications is increasingly all about change management,” says Micho Spring, head of the global corporate practice at Weber Shandwick. “In today’s stakeholder-empowered, social media-driven environment, a new cultural mindset is essential to engage and succeed. Corporate communications must lead this change, not just communicate it.”
To do that, companies will need to rethink the role of corporate communications.
Says Spring: “The agility and speed required to anticipate, manage and respond to issues as diverse as cyber security and Ebola demands alignment that cannot be achieved through more dotted lines, reorganizations or debates over who owns digital. It requires a new corporate culture that values communications as a core competency, not an ancillary function, and makes communications everybody's job, well beyond the C-suite.
3. Employees come first
“This evolution must start by engaging employees, who are already communicating about their employers on their own,” says Spring, who points to Weber Shandwick research showing that 50 percent of employees are sharing information about their employers on social media, but that only a small fraction can describe what their companies do and what their business goals are.
“In that delta lies great opportunity and the seeds for a more agile, engaged culture where everyone looks around corners for opportunities to promote and protect the brand 24/7,” Spring says. “Communications is the currency for change and as this reality is fully recognized, corporate communications will become an increasingly valuable and competitive asset in 2015 and beyond.”
4. The threat of crisis
“For many clients, the daily battle has shifted to an equal weighting of offense and defense, as companies still seek to gain visibility, win market share, reach audiences,” says Chas Withers, president and chief operating officer at Dix & Eaton. “But having a risk mitigation agenda and a crisis preparedness mindset and plan are just as important today to protecting enterprise and brand value.
“Further complicating matters, everything happens in real time, making true strategic planning more of a challenge than ever before. As one client recently commented, ‘there is only one global time-zone and that time-zone is now.’ The proliferation of new channels, and the priority of blending campaigns across those mediums, is also going to require constant focus, and at a macro level it’s hard not to think that privacy issues and digital security aren’t going to be among the most prevalent issues any of us will face in 2015.”
5. New agency models
For some time, independent midsize agencies have been stealing market share from the multinationals in local markets, but can they provide the same international coverage? Some firms are looking for creative solutions.
“The web is not only changing communication tools and strategies, it also helps new virtual forms of consulting emerge,” says Ulrich Gartner, head of Germany’s Gartner Communications. “Many small and medium sized companies have gone international, yet were hesitant to internationalize their corporate communications as they couldn’t quite find the adequate structures for it. The large networks’ offerings are often oversized for their specific needs, and managing a bunch of local providers is complex.
“What we’re now seeing is the emergence of virtual networks that cooperate online, via free tools such as Skype, Slack or similar, and flexibly bring together the expertise required in specific markets, at basically no infrastructure cost hence highly competitive rates.”